On the day of her return to competition after almost 16 months, Vinesh Phogat quietly sat in a corner of the makeshift wrestling arena at the Railways cricket ground in Jaipur, soaking in the ambience at the National Championships. Observing the wrestlers prepare for their bouts, the competition unfolding in the middle, coaches hollering their wards, Vinesh could feel a surge of energy. Gradually, her mind moved towards that heightened space of excitement and anxiety that takes over an athlete before a competition. But, in that space, there were doubts and fear too.
Vinesh is coming back from an ACL surgery of her left knee with the Paris Olympics just six months away. This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for her. In 2017, she had to fight a similar battle, but there was enough time to regain full fitness and prepare. And she was much younger then.
This time, the job at hand is much tougher for the two-time world championships medallist. Vinesh will turn 30 this year. In her weight class, the Paris Olympics quota has already been bagged by Antim Panghal, a reigning world championships medallist, and by far the most in-form Indian wrestler at the moment. Her path to Paris therefore will be cleared only if she can beat Antim in the trials at home.
For most of 2023, Vinesh was far off from mat and training, becoming the leading voice of women’s wrestlers protesting against former WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Her planned comeback to the mat at the Asian Games stalled due to the knee injury which she suffered during training, and the next five months saw her focussing purely on rehab.
A medal at the Olympics is a strong pull for her to return. Given how stellar her career has been, it will indeed remain unfulfilled without the glint of an Olympic medal. The first small step towards that was to bring herself to the mat at the Jaipur Nationals. Vinesh cruised through her bouts pinning down two of her opponents. It was only against Tamanna of Haryana in the quarter-finals that Vinesh had to dig deeper and fight for the entire duration of six minutes for a 3-0 win.
By her own admission, she did not push herself on the mat because she did not want to take any risk. That is understandable. The important thing for her was to test herself and win over her fears. And that she did. “It made me live wrestling once again,” she said.
Her real challenge, though, begins now. She came into the National Championships with limited training time on the mat. Strength training, conditioning and working on technical aspects are things she has to focus on now. Vinesh has just a month’s time to prepare before the crucial trials on March 10-12 (called by ad-hoc committee) which will be the first step towards deciding the challenger to face Antim Panghal for the final wrestle-off in May.
At the National Championships, Vinesh competed in the higher 55kg class so she will have to drop down to 53kg. The trials will be her first big challenge with CWG bronze medallist Pooja Gehlot, Asian Championships bronze medallist Sushma Shokeen and Jr Asian medallist Anju, who caused her some trouble in an international tournament in 2022, competing in the 53kg weight class. These wrestlers were either missing in Jaipur or fighting in other weight classes.
Vinesh started out as an out-and-out attacking wrestler, but over the course of her long career she has become more judicious with her offense. During the best phase of her career before the Tokyo Olympics, her explosive strength, firm grip, and ability to pounce on opponents’ weakness with quick reflexes stood out and saw her rise to world No.1.
“She is an experienced wrestler. If you are not on the mat for a long time, you lose muscle memory. She doesn’t need to learn wrestling, she needs to get back her physical fitness, her rhythm of wrestling,” said former wrestler and coach Kripa Shankar Patel.
Having coached Vinesh during her cadet days, Kripa Shankar feels she can bounce back. “She has to work on her flexibility, coordination, strength, stamina and there is a method behind all these. There is no short cut. Then, you have to translate that effort on the mat. So, if Antim Panghal has the exuberance of youth and form on her side, Vinesh has years of experience of competing at the highest level and playing under immense pressure. It will be a level field.”
Antim, a reigning two-time U20 world champion, has troubled Vinesh in selection trials. Her swift counters and fearless approach saw her win a world championship bronze in her maiden appearance last year.
“I think the real test for Vinesh will be the trials where she will fight in 53kg and there will be some good young wrestlers to challenge her,” says coach Virender Dahiya who was with the national team last year. “But Vinesh is a fighter. If she decides on something, she makes sure that she clears that target.”